Guide book publishers Cicerone celebrate 50 years of hiking, biking, skiing and climbing

The North Face of Ben Nevis. The second title published by Cicerone in 1969 was the successful Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe by Ian Clough.
The North Face of Ben Nevis. The second title published by Cicerone in 1969 was the successful Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe by Ian Clough.
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In March 1969, a new publisher called Cicerone, based in the north of England, brought out its first ever guidebook: The Northern Lake District, written by Arthur Hassall. It consisted of just 40 pages, and featured hand-drawn-illustrations, yet it was from this small seed that a very considerable publishing empire would sprout. Now, half a century on, Cicerone has around 400 titles in print, most of them guidebooks for outdoor enthusiasts looking to hike, climb, ski and cycle in wild (and not so wild) locations right across the globe. There will be events to mark the anniversary throughout the year, but first comes a new book, Cicerone: Celebrating Fifty Years of Adventure, edited by Kev Reynolds and with contributions from a whole host of Cicerone authors, which tells the very British story of how the company grew from a passion project started by two remarkable couples into a world-renowned provider of essential adventure travel information.

In his introduction, Reynolds explains how Cicerone first came into being. Walt and Dorothy Unsworth, keen walkers and climbers from Lancashire, invited another couple, Yorkshire Mountaineering Club members Brian and Aileen Evans, to visit them at their home. Walt had written a number of climbing books, while Brian had recently taken over as editor of the Scottish-based Climber and Rambler magazine. With the immortal (and more than a little ironic) words “How would you like to be a millionaire?” Walt asked Brian if he would like to set up a company with him publishing pocket-sized guidebooks. Brian and Aileen had recently bought a small printing press, and it was on this that they produced The Northern Lake District – a project financed by £60 from each couple.

Their second book, Winter Climbs: Ben Nevis and Glencoe by Ian Clough was a roaring success, partly because of Clough’s reputation as a serious mountaineer (he was the first British climber to ascend the North Face of the Eiger) and partly – according to legend – because its blue and white cover made it difficult to find when dropped in the snow, forcing users to buy multiple copies.

Thanks to the great post-war surge in interest in climbing and long-distance walking, and to Walt and Brian’s extensive connections in the climbing community, Cicerone was subsequently able to bring out books by such luminaries as Tony Howard (Walks and Climbs in Romsdal, Norway, 1970), Scotland’s own Hamish Brown (The Island of Rum, 1972) and Bill March (Modern Rope Techniques in Mountaineering, 1973). As Reynolds points out, however, the editorial work wasn’t over once a new book hit the shelves. Once one of these guidebooks had been published it needed to be regularly updated in order to provide readers with the most current information possible – as Reynolds puts it, each one marked “the beginning of a long-term ‘duty of care.’”

In 1990, Cicerone was sold to Jonathan and Lesley Williams, a professional couple in their 40s. Although they were keen outdoorsfolk, they had no publishing experience, so, to use Jonathan’s tongue-in-cheek expression, they had the “luxury” of learning everything from scratch. Under their stewardship, however, Cicerone has continued to grow and develop and it now offers a mind-bogglingly varied selection of guides, helpfully listed at the back of the Fifty Years book. There are 47 guidebooks on Scotland alone, ranging from Cycling in the Hebrides to Scrambles in Lochaber to Walking on Rum and the Small Isles. More exotic titles, meanwhile, include Treks and Climbs in Wadi Rum, Jordan and Trekking in Tajikistan.

The bulk of Fifty years consists of mini-essays from regular Cicerone contributors: a series of vivid snapshots of magical moments in the outdoors, backed up with the kind of photography that is to adventure planning as petrol is to a fire. Scottish readers will be drawn to Mike Pescod’s atmospheric description of climbing Orion Direct on Ben Nevis or Phoebe Smith’s amusing tale of having to share a bothy with a stag party by Loch Glencoul. There’s also a wonderful reflection on the solitude of remote and largely unsung Loch Enoch in the Southern Uplands by Ronald Turnbull.

Ski tourers will find themselves itching to book flights after reading Bill O’Connor’s Zermatt Safari itinerary, while Alex Stewart’s visceral account of an oxygen-starved Kilimanjaro climb – “my head pounded like a tribal drum, I struggled to keep my nausea at bay” – will most likely leave you thinking “rather him than me.”

But that, I suppose, is the point of a guidebook: to inform readers about the good and the bad, the risks and the rewards. And for all the technological changes that have swept the publishing industry in recent times, it’s hard to see guidebooks disappearing any time soon. After all, the 3G’s pretty patchy in rural Tajikistan and nobody wants to be reading from a smartphone in a blizzard.